It was while Tim Dixon was working on the Hewing Hotel in Minneapolis that an architect first told him about the International Shoe Co. building in St. Louis.
Constructed in 1909 and designed by Union Station architect Theodore C. Link, the historic structure’s steel frame and stone columns makes it just the kind of stout, turn-of-the-century warehouse Dixon relishes transforming into a destination for both tourists and locals.
“We could use it for a hotel or we could park a tank on every floor,” Dixon joked Monday, as construction crews behind him were just starting to bring the 10-story building at 1501 Washington Avenue back to life.
The developer has opted for a hotel branded as “the Last,” a reference to the shoemaking tool and a nod to the building’s history as International Shoe’s headquarters. The marketing opportunities are irresistible, too: How was your Last night? Your Last drink. Your Last experience?
Originally from Milwaukee, Dixon, through his Fe Equus Development company, has taken on similar projects, often in warehouse districts near a city’s downtown. In Milwaukee, he turned another old warehouse into the Iron Horse Hotel, just down the street from the Harley-Davidson Museum. In Minneapolis, he was part of the group that turned a brick and timber warehouse in that city’s North Loop into the Hewing.
Fe Equus’s St. Louis project has been a long time coming. Dixon first purchased the building two years ago from David Jump and has been working to shore up financing since.
That deal, with U.S. Bank, closed just as 2017 was ending. The $54 million rehab of the International Shoe building began last week.
In about 14 months, a 143-room hotel should open. But Dixon said The Last, like his other projects, will be a destination restaurant and rooftop bar catering to “the locals.”
“We just happen to have great rooms upstairs,” he said.
The building was last occupied by a charter school that officials say left in 2014. Abandoned desks and school supplies still clutter the top floor. But it’s the large windows offering panoramic views of downtown that sold Dixon on the structure.
Dixon is spending time at the library researching St. Louis history as he works to flesh out the Last’s theme and restaurant and bar concepts.
“We work really hard to find the right story and bring that local culture and local experience here,” he said.
The hotel’s roof will feature a pool and bar open to non-hotel guests. He hopes to incorporate the hippo statue, peeking out over the corner of the building and visible from the street. Maybe it can sit in the pool.
He’s managed to track down 50 pairs of early 20th-century shoes made by the International Shoe Co. from a Georgia woman who found the collection in a store she inherited. She has already donated about 100 or so pairs to a museum in Hannibal, where International Shoe operated its largest factory. If all goes as planned, Dixon hopes to display the vintage footwear throughout the Last.
Several skyways also connect the building to the City Museum on the block just to the north, and Dixon wants to use the glass-clad connectors as greenhouses to supply the Last’s restaurant with some fresh produce.
Dixon’s project is one of several hotels trying to add rooms downtown. Developer Restoration St. Louis is converting the Louis Sullivan-designed Union Trust Building into a 140-room boutique under the Marriott Autograph flag. Work has begun to turn the LaSalle Building on Olive Street into a Hotel Indigo, and Ballpark Village’s second phase includes a 216-room Live! By Loews hotel.
But Dixon isn’t daunted by the competition coming on the market. There’s a strong demand for hotel rooms, he said. In addition to the next-door City Museum, he points to the Monogram loft rehab down the street and other residential projects proposed downtown as reasons to be bullish on the neighborhood.
Paric Corp. is the general contractor on the International Shoe building, and ESG out of Minneapolis is the architect. Dixon’s partners on the project are Neil Freeman of Chicago-based Aries Capital and Michael Qualizza.
The city last year approved 10 years of full tax abatement for the project and five years of 50 percent abatement. St. Louis also contributed $6.5 million in federal new market tax credits, and Dixon will use state and federal historic tax credits to help finance the project.